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        6-8, 13+

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        Platte River Prairies: Lesson Plan

        Learn about the chain of grasslands, wetlands, and woodlands that make up the Platte River Prairies. This lesson plan explores a complex ecosystem that supports a highly diverse community of plants and animals.

        Lesson Summary

        While some people think of Nebraska as a boring, flat place, the state’s subtle landscape contains biologically rich and diverse ecosystems defined by rivers like the Platte. This set of learning activities help students understand the Biodiversity of the Grasslands of the Platte River Prairie. They will learn about the animals of the Nebraska prairie as well as vegetation, plant life and the important role they play to the prairie ecosystem. They will also understand how to help conserve this beautiful resource.

        STEM lessons are aligned to both Next Generation Science Standards and Nebraska State Standards.

        Time Allotment

        TWO 45-minute class periods or up to FOUR 45-minute class periods with the addition of the outdoor tour activity.

        Learning Objectives

        • Students will be able to recognize plants and animals native to Nebraska prairies.
        • Students will be able to explain the importance of plants to the prairie ecosystem.
        • Students will be able to establish an official herbarium at their local school.
        • Students will be able to construct, examine, and evaluate a food chain and food web interaction.

        Prep for Teachers

        During instruction, adhere to a gradual release of responsibility. First, explain and model the strategy
        for students (ME) and then have the class complete the strategy together (WE). Next, put students into pairs to practice the strategy. (TWO), and finally, have the stu-dents work independently to complete the strategy (YOU).


        Online access to Platte Basin Timelapse website, pencil, paper, resource books of animals and plants of the Nebraska prairies.

        Platte Basin Timelapse: Platte River Prairies


        food web -  the interlocking food chains within an ecological community.
        food chain -  a series of living beings in which each serves as food for the next. Bats eat insects, and so are above them in the food chain.
        species -  a group of living things that can mate with one another but not with those of other groups. A hound and a poodle belong to the same species.
        energy transfer -  The conversion of one form of energy into another, or the movement of energy from one place to another.
        law of conservation of energy -  the total energy of an isolated system remains constant—it is said to be conserved over time. Energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it transforms from one form to another.
        law of conservation of mass -  mass in an isolated system is neither created nor destroyed by chemical reactions or physical transformations. According to the law of conservation of mass, the mass of the products in a chemical reaction must equal the mass of the reactants.
        systems -  a group of related things or parts that work together as a whole.
        predator - an animal that hunts other animals for food. Cats are important predators on farms, where they kill destructive rodents.
        prey - an animal being hunted, caught, and eaten by another animal. Rabbits are a favorite prey of coyotes.
        herbivore -  an animal that only feeds on plants.
        carnivore -  an animal that eats the flesh of other animals. Wolves are carnivores that are capable of hunting much larger animals than themselves.
        scavenger - an animal that finds and eats dead animals or rotting plants; a person who finds things that others no longer want. Hyenas are scavengers.
        detritivore -  an animal that feeds on dead organic material, especially plant detritus.
        decomposer -  an organism, especially a soil bacterium, fungus, or invertebrate, that decomposes organic material.
        trophic level -  each of several hierarchical levels in an ecosystem, comprising organisms that share the same function in the food chain and the same nutritional relationship to the primary sources of energy.
        herbarium -  a collection of dried plants that have been systematically arranged and labeled, often for scientific use.
        tallgrass prairie - The tallgrass prairie is an ecosystem native to central North America.


        Introductory Activity

        Engage (me):

        Students begin by exploring 4 videos in the “Watch Prairie Animals” activity page on the Platte Basin Timelapse Project website:

        Platte Basin Timelapse: Prairie Animals

        Next, instruct students to view 4 different videos that they find interesting, but NOT to write anything down. The point of this exercise is to simply engage students in locally found animals in the Nebraska prairie system.  Once students have explored the activity for about 5-10 minutes, have them journal about what they watched. Ask the following questions:

        1. Which animals did you view on the site?
        2. What information—size, predator/prey relationships, where they live, etc.—can you tell me about the animals that you saw?
        3. What time of day or night do you think you can find these animals in Nebraska?

        These questions will help teach students how to pay attention to details, which will come in handy later when viewing more organisms and recording information about those organisms.

        Learning Activities

        Explore (we/two):
        Students now examine the plants of the prairie by going to the “Prairie Plants” page:

        Platte Basin Timelapse: Prairie Plants

        Have students read the text—a more traditional way of gathering information—and view the two videos on the page. While watching the first video, have students answer the following questions:

        1. Why are plants important?
        2. What determines where plants grow?
        3. How is the relationship between plants and insects important to the productivity of the prairie?
        4. How many plant species are found in Nebraska? In the Platte Basin?
        5. What is the value of an herbarium?

        Once the first video is complete, have students watch the second video and record the steps needed to start your very own herbarium. There are 5 steps indicated in the video listed below.  Review with students after all have viewed the video to make sure they know what is needed to begin collecting and preserving their own plants.

        1. Collect Sample
        2. Press Sample
        3. Identification Confirmed
        4. Mounting
        5. Labeling

        Students should brainstorm after the list is created about what equipment they have in the classroom that could be used to create a plant press.  Students should come up with heavy books instead of belts to press plants, left over cardboard boxes, acid free photo mounting paper, large construction paper, glue, old newspapers, magnifying glass.

        A separate activity can be done at this point to collect plants found around your school or local park (with permission of course) to begin your own classroom herbarium.  Students can create an annual record of plants around their school by having their own herbarium in the classroom.  

        An herbarium instruction sheet (Handout 1: pdf -attached in the Teacher and Student Resources ) and separate plant specimen label (Handout 2: pdf) is available for you to use in the classroom.  The instruction sheet is a handout to students while the plant label is for all students to use. 

        Explain (two/you)
        Students will now explore and explain the connection between plants and animals in the prairie ecosystem in Nebraska. Students must visit the Food Chain/Food Web activity page:
        Platte Basin Timelapse: Food Chains / Food Webs and go through the process of identifying food chains and food webs.  As students work through the food chain AND food web activity, have them answer the “Platte Basin Timelapse Food Chain/Food Web Questions” (Handout 3: pdf - attached in the Teacher and Student Resources).  

        In order to answer the questions on the Food Chain/Web handout, students must have the background knowledge (or have access to it) of the following terms:  food web, food chain, species, energy transfer, law of conservation of en-ergy, law of conservation of mass, systems, predator, prey, herbivore, carnivore, scavenger, detritivore, decomposer, trophic level.

        Discuss the questions and answers in class to make sure the concepts are well understood, as there can be many misconceptions about food chains and food webs due to misunderstandings about the nature of energy and mass in a system.

        Elaborate (you)
        At this point, students should be able to construct their own food chains and food webs. See Handout 4 labeled “Platte Basin Timelapse Food Chain/Food Web Energy Flow Activity” (Handout 4: pdf -attached in the Teacher and Student Resources).

        Culminating Activity

        After creation of the food web, move on to the final question in the Evaluation portion.

        Evaluate (you)
        Option 1:
        Have students complete the “Prairie Reflection Essay”
        (Handout 5: pdf) in order to help demonstrate their learning from the project. The time provided for the essay can
        be altered to fit within a given time you need, however
        the questions themselves are directed at synthesizing
        and evaluating what they have learned and should only
        be altered to fit the needs of individual students when appropriate.

        Option 2 Advanced:
        Have students create an outdoor tour of their surrounding school grounds or local park. The area has to be within walking distance of the school and you must have permission to place signs at the site. See Handout 6 (attached in the Teacher and Student Resources). Platte Basin Timelapse Outdoor Tour.

        This project is a performance-based assessment. This assessment goes into much greater detail than the exploration of the Prairie section of the Timelapse project, however it does promote the conservation and preservation efforts of the Timelapse project.


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